Who cares about coronavirus? How different generations are dealing with the pandemic

Americans older than 60 years of age are more likely than people aged 18 to 34 to take precautionary measures when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19, research has found.

A new survey out of the U.S., conducted by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and shared with Global News, asked people about public health measures like washing hands more frequently, avoiding touching your face, staying away from large groups and wearing a mask.

According to the data, 87 per cent of people ages 18 to 34 reported washing their hands more frequently to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus compared to 95 per cent of people 60 years and older.

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Sixty-seven per cent of people ages 18 to 34 said they are avoiding touching their face, while 71 per cent of people 60 years and older said the same.

The largest differences were visible in the questions about staying away from large groups and wearing a mask.

Seventy-nine per cent of people ages 18 to 34 said they were staying away from large groups, and 95 per cent of people older than 60 said the same. Meanwhile, 62 per cent of people in the younger category said they wear a mask when leaving home, while 82 per cent of people 60 and older reported wearing a mask.

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There were also interesting age differences in fear about giving COVID-19 to someone else in a person’s home.

According to the survey, 33 per cent of people ages 18 to 34 were “extremely/very worried” about themselves or someone in their family being infected with the virus. In the group of people 60 and older, only 29 per cent of people said the same.

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Generational divide

The finding that young people are reportedly less likely to adopt public health measures like avoiding crowds signals a generational divide, said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Queen’s University and the medical director of infection prevention and control at Kingston Health Sciences Centre.

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“At first, Gen X-ers and, to some extent, millennials were concerned about the fact that this new virus could affect them as well as their parents and/or grandparents substantially, and they had to think about what the implications (of their actions) were,” Evans told Global News.

“We’ve been very fortunate, things have gone well for us here, so I think that sort of worry and concern has dropped off a fair bit.”

During your 20s and 30s, socialization is a big portion of your life, Evans said. At first, young people were, for the most part, willing to sacrifice that to protect other people. But now that cases are declining in Canada, those same age groups are wondering, “What is this doing to my life?”

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Relative risk is also contributing to this divide, Evans said.

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“The only thing that (could’ve shaded) the boomers’ view of things was if they identified early on that they were at risk. Their age predicted that, if this was going to be a huge problem, they were going to suffer the more serious consequences from it,” Evans said.

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However, it is surprising that millennials are less likely to don a mask before leaving the house because they’re typically more open to new ideas than baby boomers, Evans added.

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“When we’re young, we’re much more open to change (and) new ideas,” he said. “It’s why young people generally have a more progressive mindset than older people, who tend to be a little bit more conservative.

“To suddenly start wearing masks seems so antithetical to some idea you had about your freedom of choice … which is much more ingrained in older people than it is in young people.”

Why some people still refuse to follow the rules

There are other reasons people may not follow COVID-19 rules that have less to do with age and more to do with cultural differences and an underestimation of the virus threat.

For one, there’s a distinct emotional component to this time in history. The pandemic has greatly affected people’s well-being and has upended many folks’ lives. People have lost jobs and loved ones, and stress levels and mental distress are up.

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When people are in a heightened emotional state, their ability to think rationally can be affected.

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“While some people view wearing of masks as altruistic and a joint effort to combat the virus, others view it as yet another way that their lives are being controlled by the government and by the virus,” Taslim Alani-Verjee, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist and founder of the Silm Centre for Mental Health, previously told Global News.

“When anxiety is heightened, we tend to take more rigid stances and lose our flexibility, and, unfortunately, sometimes our ability to see things rationally.”

It doesn’t help that Canadians, like their neighbours to the south, live in a very “individualistic” way. Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, said North American societies often value individualism over collectivism, which means Canadians and Americans greatly value their individual freedoms.

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When it comes to masks, this means people may think of themselves and their own comfort over the collective good that comes from virus prevention measures.

“That’s a cultural characteristic of often western European and North American countries that differ, say, from Asian countries, especially East Asia, which are more collectivistic,” Van Bavel, who co-authored a recent paper on behaviour response to the COVID-19 pandemic, previously told Global News.

“In individualistic cultures, you pride things like individual freedom of expression more. In collectivistic cultures, you tend to prioritize the benefit of the group. And so that might be one cultural factor that puts people at risk in Canada.”

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As the number of active COVID-19 cases continues to decline in Canada, it’s also likely that some people don’t think it’s that much of a concern anymore. Many Canadians haven’t experienced the virus first-hand, creating what’s known as a “hidden pandemic.”

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This plays into “optimism bias,” which is the idea that bad things are more likely to happen to other people than oneself. This mentality can play a role in how people assess risk, causing them to think they don’t need to take health precautions as seriously.

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“Even if they might realize there’s a big risk for the population, they somehow think they’re exempt from it, that it doesn’t apply to them,” Van Bavel explained.

“They might think they’re smarter, more clever or healthier.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include but are not limited to: fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

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In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

— With files from Global News’ Laura Hensley


© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.